The Barbarian sat in the back corner of the tavern, sipping ale and watching the goings on of the locals.
He noticed one old man in particular. He stood at the bar, alone, back to the world, wearing a tattered black jacket, with breeches tucked into near worn out knee-high boots. His long, grey hair gushed from under a tattered wide brimmed hat. He looked as if he could have been in rugged shape once upon a year, but time had not been kind to him.
Folks called him Jaques. Many hollered jeers to him, asking him to again relate to them the happenings which led to his peculiar attitude. Jaques remained silent, sipping on the mug before him.
Breen entered and, upon seeing the young warrior, made his way to the corner table. He motioned to the bar maid for an ale of his own and a refill for his companion, when he noticed where the Barbarian’s attention centered.
“Ah, yes, old Jaques,” said Breen. “A strange hermit, he is. Tells tales of how he lost his friends to some kind of wolf beings.” He added with a slight chuckle, “Of course, one must ply him with drinks to be rewarded with those accounts.”
The Barbarian said, “I would like to hear that story.” When the maid brought their mugs, Breen supplied extra coins with the direction that the barman get his approval before tendering the drinks to Jaques.
They watched as the girl leaned over the bar to deliver the money and instructions, pointing at the pair to indicate the benefactors. Breen nodded assent for the first.
When the mug slid to rest in front of the old man, he looked questioning at the server, then hung his head, as if regretting what he knew to be forthcoming.
He chugged what remained in his current stein, then grabbed the new one and turned to address the crowd.
“Aye, and who do we owe this evening’s tale to?”
Breen stood and motioned to his companion, his deep voice carrying the extent of the tavern. “My friend here is from elsewhere and has an interest in your story of the Nosbent Hunting Trip.”
With one eye closed, Jaques peered at the large young man. “And where be ya from, young sir?”
The Barbarian replied, “Elsewhere, not near here.”
Jaques mulled it over, then asked his name. Breen answered for him, “He is called Barbarian.”
Murmurs rippled around the establishment as to whether he could be The Barbarian they had all heard about. “Aye, that Barbarian.” Breen called out. “Have you heard of another? The man who accompanied me and my men in pursuit of the Wizard Killers. The same who leapt into the midst of 25 attacking men and slew all but two before my own seasoned warriors could roll their stinking hides from under their blankets to defend themselves.” He cast a look across the room at a gathering of five of his soldiers, and they in turn avoided eye contact with their superior.
“Well, then, Barbarian,” Jaques began in his raspy voice, “prepare yourself for a harrowing tale, one that will have the hackles of even a brave soul like yours rising by the terror of the telling.” He paused then, draining his mug and slamming it to the bar. Looking at Breen, he requested a more effective lubricant to coax the words from his memory. Breen motioned to the barman, placing a fist in the palm of his other hand, then holding three fingers aloft.
That brought a red tinted bottle from the top shelf, dusty from infrequent use. The barman set it down, and with a practiced hand, slid it to rest in front of the old man, along with a fresh flagon. Jaques looked at the markings, stating, “Aye, that ought’a do ‘er.”
He raised it to his lips and gulped three swallows, then bent in an effort not to cough the strong fumes out. The patrons laughed, but quieted as Jaques poured a healthy portion into his new mug of ale. When he had his breath back, he began:
“T’wer nearly thirty year ago. Had me a stead near the border in Poss, just south’a Berq. I always went a- huntin’ with the same four buds of mine; Blak, Mers, Owen and Jern. While others had the duties of the farms, we took the duties of the gatherin’ of wild game to round out the stores.
“With ’bout a hour of sun left, we had just got near the crest of Nosbent. We always stopped to camp before settin’ out early next day to catch the beasts un’wares.
“When we had camp up, Mers heard some rust’lin short off, an’ Blak went t’ go see. Mers had the hearin’ of a hound, he did. Blak could run down a cony with nary a sound, and Owen and I were the shooters. Dead on with a bow, when I’s in my prime, I was. Jern, he could dress and get anything ready for storage in shorter order than anyone we knew, an’ was deadly in a close-up knife fight.”
He paused to swig his mug, and a flurry of activity filled the other mugs that had run dry. He gave them all time to return to their places before continuing.
“We who’s left rounded the fire, backs to it, Owen an’ me drawn, Mers an’ Jern with blades out…” as he spoke the words, he seemed to get lost in the memory, pointing to where the others stood, and assuming the stance of an expert archer, “…circling slowly to cover round the camp. Blak called out his return and came in with two of the scraggiest fellers I ever seen. Their clothes barely clung to ’em, so torn up they were.
“We set ’em down an’ offered water an’ some food. The tale they told had them as the last survivors of Lorn, at least a league north’a us. None of us had heard of nuthin’ happenin’ there, but news don’t travel so well in them parts. ‘Round sundown, we decided t’ call it th’ night so’s we could get up in time.
“I woke sometime in th’ night. Heard somethin’ movin’ by in the tree line. Got my bow and nudged Jern, finger to my lips for quiet. We went t’wards the noise, but before we found it, sump’n covered in fur pounced on ‘im.
“I couldn’t get a clean shot, but the noise of his hollers brought the others up. Another flash of hair went by Owen an’ he lay on th’ ground with his neck torn out, then the thing hit Blak.
“I fired at the one what got Jern; hit it, too. Durned thing just looked at me.
“It stood ’bout six foot tall, covered in grey fur. Long legs, but the knees bent back’ards, an’ the hands had wicked sharp talons on th’ fingers. More claws than hands, really.
“But the snout’s what caught my attention most. If’n I didn’t know better, I’d swear it were a dog ‘r a wolf ‘r sump’n, but they don’t walk only on their back legs. Its mouth were filled with such teeth that looked like daggers, an’ Jern’s blood drippin’ off ’em.
“It moved t’wards me, but Mers jumped it, drove ‘is short blade to th’ hilt in th’ thing’s chest. The howl that thing let out; can still hear it, I can. Sometimes, I wake in th’ middle of th’ night hearin’ that howl. It just reached up, grabbed Mers by the head with one clawed hand an’ flung ‘im to the ground. Dropped on top and tore into his throat.
“I din’t know what else t’ do. I dropped m’ bow an’ ran into th’ darkness. We always camped close to the peak of th’ mountain, so’s I went uphill. No idea how I thought clear ’nuff to do that, but when I got to th’ ridge, I tried to find somewhere to hide. I guess I hit a loose rock, ’cause I tumbled back’rds off the cliff.
“Felt m’ leg snap when I hit, but would not yell, no siree. That’d brought them hounds on me. Heard ’em up top, sniffin ’round tryin’ t’ get my scent. They must’a thought I just up ‘n disappeared on ’em. Howled sump’n fierce, they did.
“When th’ sun come up, I found me a branch for a crutch, followed th’ trail up an’ ‘ventially made it back t’ Berq.
“T’wern’t no Doc local, so a neighbor loaded me on a cart and took me t’ one. Couple days later, we went back, but ev’rone lay strewn on the ground, all tore up, all dead. I left that very night. Nut’n t’ keep me there, nut’n t’ go back to.”
The entire tavern had fallen silent. Jaques drained his mug, then set it on the bar, took up the dusty red bottle and left, not even looking over his shoulder.
Breen looked at the Barbarian, who sat rubbing his chin in thought, watching the door swing shut behind the strange old man.